26 April-2 May 2013 #653

Setting off the siren

Sita Mademba, Himal Kahbarpatrika, 21 April

In 2002, Shyam Shrestha of Sunsari opened Goma Memorial Trust in his sister’s name and operated an ambulance service as part of the organisation. Although the trust no longer exists today, the ambulance can still be found outside the gates of BP Koirala Health Sciences Foundation in Dharan, waiting eagerly for patients. Sita Sah too used to operate an ambulance under the Jawahar Sah Memorial Foundation, but that vehicle is also parked near the BP Koirala Hospital. Similarly, another ambulance registered to operate around Sunsari loiters around Siru Medical Hall in Dharan. There are hundreds of such ‘trusts’ and ‘foundations’ whose vehicles are no longer providing social service, but have become commercial vehicles that charge patients and their families exorbitant fares.

Only a month ago, a hearse that transported the body of a journalist from Itahari to Dharan charged Rs 3,000 – thrice the rate set by the Red Cross Society – for the journey. The father of the deceased said the driver of the hearse owned by Man Bahadur Shrestha Foundation did not even bother to hand him a receipt.

Some former employees of trusts have now become middlemen who work in and around hospitals hawking prospective passengers. Agents who offer services of Sristi Memorial Trust, Man Bahadur Shrestha Foundation, and Purna Bahadur Memorial Foundation were found inside the emergency ward of BP. An agent receives anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 for each trip and those who can get passengers to Siliguri in India can earn up to Rs 2,000. This business is proving to be so lucrative that hospital employees and security guards are all part of a cross-border ferry network. Agents even get commissions from clinics and hospitals in Siliguri for booking a trip that far.

According to the Nepal Red Cross Society, there are 53 ambulances and four hearses operating in Sunsari alone. Chudamani Sharma, who headed a committee last year to investigate the misuse of ambulances and ferry vehicles in Sunsari, says that most organisations have ditched social service for personal profits. Sharma’s committee had ordered the ambulance controllers to stick to what they were registered for – social service – but Umesh Thapa of the Red Cross says that nobody complied.

Although the Ambulance Operation Policy 2060 has provisions to scrap licences of ambulance operators that flout guidelines, no one in Dharan is scared of losing their cash cow.

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